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Harris boss: 'All our schools are autonomous. But they are also accountable to people who understand education'

Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, pushes back against the idea that schools lose their freedoms when they become part of an academy chain

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As principal of a city technology college, what motivated me was the freedom to determine the destiny of my school. Now as the CEO of the Harris Federation, I run a structure where the autonomy of principals is at the heart of our success.

William Stewart argues that centralisation by academy trusts goes "beyond anything that local authorities would have dared to do at the height of their powers", but this is not true of all of us. In fact, our model is the antithesis of what is depicted in his article.

Take the new national curriculum, for example. Our principals wanted to work together to create new schemes of work that all Harris academies could use. Teachers from each academy worked with our centrally employed subject consultants to develop these, and the outcome is an outstanding bank of resources. But principals have the freedom to decide whether to use them or not.

We were perfectly relaxed when two of our principals decided not to opt in, because we know they are delivering the curriculum very well regardless. For our other principals, the schemes of work added value intelligently, which is what we aim to achieve with all of our common systems. But none of our principals would ever say they are not free to make their own choices.

Freedom to innovate

By collaborating with each other to achieve real benefits, while ensuring principals can still benefit from being free to innovate, the best outcomes are achieved for students.

When he established our multi-academy trust (MAT), Lord Harris was clear that he wanted to create a brand in education, but we are deliberately a federation not a chain. Principals have autonomy over everything that is important in the way their school is run: staffing, recruitment, finance, curriculum and training. As for teaching and learning, you would not find a single style of teaching within any individual Harris academy let alone across the federation.

What you would expect to find, however, and countless inspections have ratified this, is a quality threshold that is extremely high, ambitious and always looking to be bettered.

Our governance structure supports this way of doing things, with powerful and authoritative local governing bodies able to hold principals to account and a central team who can support this process in order to drive further improvement.

I am deeply proud of the systems we have developed centrally. But we are there to provide support and guidance, and to challenge – never to provide a straitjacket. 

As a MAT, we are judged by the success of our schools. But likewise, we stand by our schools, offering them support in their autonomy; giving our staff the freedom but not compulsion to work together; and providing the challenge and focus of peer-to-peer expertise. We are focused on one thing and one thing only: an outstanding education for all our students.

Does this make our principals less autonomous? No. Does it make them more accountable to people who understand education and will challenge them early and in-depth? Yes it does – and so it should.

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